Meet the Child and Youth Advocate / PEI
Marvin M. Bernstein, B.A., J.D., LL.M. (ADR)
First of all, I am delighted and honored to have been appointed as the first independent Child and Youth Advocate for Prince Edward Island. More importantly, this is an historic and momentous occasion for Islander children and youth, who for the first time have an independent office dedicated to advancing their rights, interests and viewpoints.
I am passionate about child advocacy. It isn’t just a job to me. It is a lifestyle and a driving force in my life. I also have a strong sense of social justice and believe that we can all be agents of positive social change if we are optimistic, principled and prepared to speak out where we see unfairness or discrimination in any shape or form, particularly where it affects our most vulnerable and marginalized youngest citizens.
I am a lawyer by profession with decades of professional experience, having served in a variety of roles over the course of my career. This has provided me with the opportunity to advocate for improved government services to children and youth in many different provinces and territories, as well as at the federal level. I have worked both within and outside of the public sector and am able to view the impacts upon children and youth through different lenses and through the framework of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child.
During my time as the Children’s Advocate for Saskatchewan, I had one of the broadest mandates in the country. My Office engaged in individual and systemic advocacy, individual and systemic investigations (including child deaths and serious injuries), early complaints resolution, public education and research, monitoring and recommendation tracking, and placed a strong reliance on amplifying and promoting the voices of children and youth. I also advocated for more equitable funding and services to Indigenous children and youth and actively opposed the over-representation of Indigenous children in child welfare care and in the youth criminal justice system.
It is important for young people to see my Office as one that empowers them and reduces stigma. It is part of my Office’s responsibility to raise public awareness and see children and youth as individuals with human rights and voices to be heard. This means that we state clearly that young people cannot be reduced to categories of offenders, victims or the property of others and cannot be defined by their experience of past adversity. They are individuals who are full of promise and potential capable of writing their own successful life story.
I am a substantial sports fan too! Just a few summers ago, I was actually in Toronto on a hot and jovial day when the Raptors were celebrating with a parade for becoming the NBA Champions! It was a day when millions of people filled the streets. I was pleased to share the experience with my wife, son, and son-in-law, who all joined in. I found that the Raptors playoff run and win took the country by storm, bonded our diverse community, and gave us a shared goal - a rallying point. One of my other favourite sports experiences was being in the stadium for ALL of the Blue Jays World Series games in the early 1990s. Now THAT was a thrill! I firmly believe we all need the Right to Play and Recreation! It brings us together and brings us joy in our lives.
Also available, Marvin M. Bernstein, formal professional biography.
Meet Rona Smith, B.A., B.S.W., M.S.W., R.S.W.
Deputy Child and Youth Advocate
It continues to my privilege to serve Island children, youth and their families; a privilege entrusted to me throughout my forty years of public service in PEI; in areas of child abuse and family violence.
As a social worker, my personal and professional worldview, continues to be influenced by my family upbringing and my professional values, both of which are founded on pillars of social justice and advocacy on behalf of vulnerable persons. This helped me choose a professional career devoted to my passion for child advocacy, in the promotion and protection, of all children and youth as human rights holders.
Throughout my career, I have been fortunate to have many opportunities to grow and learn. Children, youth and their families have trusted me to listen carefully and respectfully to their life journeys, often filled with pain, isolation and vulnerability. Throughout my career, I have carried the privilege of these shared personal stories with me in my different jobs, so that I never forget whom I am trying to help, both at an individual level and at a broader systemic and societal level.
As a very young child, my family taught me about the power and influence of unconditional love, respect, humility, and service to others above self. My career, as an adult, has helped me connect with other amazing children, youth and adults, from around the world, who share these same values; both in my paid work with government and my volunteer work in the community. In both government and the community, my contributions in working as a team member with other amazing, kind and caring people, are reflected with different awards and recognitions that I have been humbled to receive.
I love to learn and go to school, and for the past many years, I have had the privilege to teach at our local university. When teaching, I believe I often take away far more learning from the students than I give back to them. The classroom provides safe space for critical thinking, without judgement, as we discuss complex social issues affecting children, youth, families and communities. The shared world vision for peace, respect, and kindness, gives me hope and energy.
Reflecting upon a social work career of frontline and senior management public service to children, youth, families and communities, coupled with decades of collaborative public and professional efforts to give strengthened voice to vulnerable children and help make long-term changes in laws and policies to help other children and youth going forward, the work, at times, was isolating and heavy.
Proclamation of the new PEI Child and Youth Advocate Act and establishment of the new Office of the Child and Youth Advocate brings optimism, hope and illumination of all PEI children and youth as human rights holders. In a career spun over four decades of advocacy and public service, this is a dream come true and now I have the privilege to continue to serve children, youth and their families in my new role with this office, for which I am both humbled and honored.
Meet Dr. Wendy Verhoek-Oftedahl, Ph.D.
I am pleased and honoured to serve as the Investigation/Research Representative for the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate.
I am an injury epidemiologist with over 25 years of experience in the field of family violence prevention. Prior to moving to Prince Edward Island, I held a research faculty position at Brown University in Rhode Island in the US. My research focus was the evaluation of methods for public health surveillance of intimate partner and sexual violence, child maltreatment and elder abuse, and included analysis of incident characteristics to inform prevention efforts.
I served as the project manager for the Rhode Island component of the US National Violent Death Reporting System (NVDRS) as well as consultant epidemiologist and coordinator for the Rhode Island Child Death Review Team that reviewed deaths to identify opportunities for prevention across the levels of the ecological model of prevention. I know firsthand the value and importance of collaborative systems review to inform work to prevent these tragic deaths and I am thrilled to be part of this foundational work in Prince Edward Island.
My dream to relocate to Prince Edward Island where my family summered for a number of years became a reality when I assumed the position of the Family Violence Prevention and Community Development Coordinator for the province. While in that position, I served as Resource for the Premier’s Action Committee on Family Prevention and chair of the provincial Child Sexual Abuse Advisory Committee. I have also been a collaborator on the Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative and a member of the research hub focused on children living with domestic violence. As I first began my career, the importance of this area of prevention was brought into sharp focus for me by the Canadian film, The Crown Prince. This film, while dated, is a powerful depiction of domestic violence as shown from the perspective of the children and has continued to motivate my work to prevent family violence and improve the wellbeing of children to this day.
I also know firsthand the importance and value of engaging young people in our work. In 2007, one of the students I was teaching, was analyzing statewide data on police-reported incidents of teen dating violence when legislation was introduced mandating that school districts implement policies on dating violence, including education and prevention. The proposed legislation was in response to the homicide of a young woman by her former boyfriend. In addition to the compelling testimony by family, friends and service providers, my student, a peer of the victim, passionately presented the results of her analyses using her data to demonstrate that each component of the legislation was relevant and important. Legislators were very moved by her testimony and passed the legislation which was the first comprehensive teen dating violence prevention law in the US. Since that time more than 20 states have passed similar legislation.
I look forward to contributing my expertise and experience, and working collaboratively with others as we undertake the essential work of the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate to advance the voices and wellbeing of children and youth.
Meet Dr. Erica Evans, BA, P.G.C.E., MEd, EdD.
I am a proud Canadian citizen, returning in 2021 to live on Prince Edward Island after 35 years in England. Having spent many summers with family on the stunning North Shore, I am thrilled to now be a resident of this wonderful province. It is my privilege to work with the Office of the Child and Youth Advocate, amplifying the rights of all children on the island.
My career in education began as a qualified primary school teacher in the UK. I feel honored to have spent many years in the classroom, working directly with children and their families. My aim was to create a learning environment where all children felt heard and included. I have special memories of many magical moments in the classroom and of the amazing children who directed our learning together.
Supporting the improvement of early childhood education and care, I worked as a development officer for the government in the Early Years Development and Childcare Partnership in Brighton and Hove, England. My commitment to ensuring the youngest children had access to high quality, child centered provision was a focus for my work.
My interest in children’s rights and the enactment of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child has directed much of my professional work and study over the past two decades. As Senior Lecturer in Education at the University of Brighton, I worked with trainee teachers and early childhood education and care practitioners, supporting the development of their practice, with particular emphasis on inclusion, equalities and rights based education. During my time at the University of Brighton I was fortunate enough to engage in the European Erasums exchange program with a colleague from Karlstad University in Sweden. This experience broadened my understanding of rights based education in differing cultural contexts.
Completing my Masters in Education, with a focus on participatory practice, I continued to study children’s rights, successfully completing the Professional Doctorate in Education. My thesis researched the participation rights of babies and toddlers in early childhood education and care centers. Findings highlighted the interdependence of protection and participation rights, and the importance of attuned, responsive care giving that prioritizes opportunities for the voices of the youngest children to be heard and acted upon.
I am co-author of the Amnesty International First Steps resource pack, supporting educators to introduce rights to children aged 3-5. I am a contributing author to Integrated Working with Children and Young People (edited by Dr Nadia Edmond and Dr Mark Price) and more recently to The Theory and Practice of Voice in Early Childhood: An International Exploration (edited by Dr Lorna Arnott and Prof. Kate Wall).
I bring my passion for social justice, inclusive practices and the honoring of children’s rights to my role as advocacy representative and a commitment to serving the children of Prince Edward Island with the highest level of respect they deserve.